Initial release: October 31, 2002
Platform: PC, PlayStation 2, XBox, GameCube
Developer: Terminal Reality
The post-9/11 era: a time when geek culture lost all concept of good taste, when the aesthetics of 1990s comic books, mallcore and the cringiest of the German industrial music scene frequently blended together to disgorge diarrhea orgasms of oversexed goth crap.
Let’s talk about Bloodrayne.
Terminal Reality were once known for their attempt at being an arthouse studio, being one of the founders of auteur publisher Gathering of Developers. With releases like the cult hit Nocturne and the first Blair Witch game under their belt they’d made a name for themselves. As is often the case with these kinds of things, Gathering of Developers was a short-lived venture, and in need of a new publisher for their upcoming game, Terminal Reality went to Majesco, and in the wake of that union, what was was originally planned to be a sequel to Nocturne would be reworked from a low-key classic horror game in the vein of 1930s horror into Bloodrayne, an action-oriented comic book-style gusher fest to appeal to a broader, largely console-based audience, gorged on popular edgy material like Devil May Cry, Blade and The Matrix. The similarities between Nocturne and Bloodrayne’s respective universes are so great that it could be argued that they’re simply the same universe — in fact, they even share a location, an ancient, crumbling castle in Germany populated by vampires so old they’ve gone feral.
The protagonist, creatively named Rayne, is clearly modeled off a character from Nocturne, and the organization she works for, Brimstone, is Nocturne’s Spookhouse in all but name. Several other elements from Nocturne make a return in Bloodrayne, some of them just have the serial numbers filed off. But other than some plot and lore details the two games couldn’t be more different. If nocturne feels like a somewhat clunky but original take on the survival horror genre, Bloodrayne feels like an attempt to ape Devil May Cry without understanding how that game’s combat worked.
The game opens in the early 30s with Rayne, a young “dhampir” (half human half vampire) hunting vampires somewhere in central Europe. After an action packed scene in which she slaughters several vampires, the cutscene ends as her secret observers leave. The next thing we know, she’s been recruited into Brimstone, which offers help finding her evil father in exchange for her doing some work for them. The game begins proper with her and Mynce, her Brimstone mentor, investigating a monster outbreak in Louisiana in 1933. Right away we find out just how bad the combat is. Devil May Cry’s combat was tightly designed with a focus on combos and a real sense of tactility. In Bloodrayne you swing away at things with no real sense that it’s doing much. It’s like you’re watching a third person mode in a late 90s first person shooter: there’s no sense of impact, no oomph.
It really must be emphasized: the combat is terrible. It’s one of the least rewarding aspects of the game, a game packed full of unrewarding aspects. Aside from an anemic melee component, you also get guns, but the gun system is… actually even worse. Much like Devil May Cry, there is plenty of dual wielding. Unlike Devil May Cry, ammo is finite, and you just use whatever historically inaccurate weapons you find laying around until they run out. The game prioritizes your guns based on small guns or heavy guns. You also can switch to grenades (with a max of two, but when you find new ones, half of them you can still pick up and they just disappear) as well as “special” weapons that you can only carry one of and are mostly either machine guns or high-damage longarms like a shotgun or sniper rifle. Being a half-vampire, Rayne utilizes her teeth not only to take out enemies but it’s also her sole means of regaining health. It only works on humanoid enemies, as well, making areas filled with inhuman monsters particularly dangerous. She’s also given a grappling hook, the sole purpose of which is to grab enemies and pull them to her, Mortal Kombat style. Some enemies will resist being grabbed, and since combat is so fast, getting behind them is easier said than done. That’s where one of Rayne’s secondary vision modes comes in, granting her Matrix-style bullet time, slowing things down to give the impression of greater reflexes. There’s also a simple heat-seeking vision as well as a long-range vision mode later on.
The second thing that becomes obvious is that the level design is kind of crap. Before you’re even given the controls, the game tells you that Rayne is allergic to water, and will take damage if she’s so much as ankle-deep. Guess what’s abundant in a flooded Louisiana town? While the early levels are mostly bad platforming, they’re still rather linear. When the action moves five years to 1938 and Rayne infiltrates a Nazi base in Argentina (yeah, I know,) the levels start becoming mazelike, structured in a hub-style much like Quake II or Hexen, only not as good. The bad level design reaches a head towards the end of the chapter, where you’re in a massive biological cavern filled with poisonous gas. Your only way out is through a hole in the wall, but getting there requires carefully traversing slimy tendrils that stretch across the room. It’s so easy to fall off over and over, and what should take 2 minutes winds up being 20, as you’re also dealing with Nazis shooting at you. It’s some of the most infuriating design I’ve seen, and that’s saying something. The Germany chapter isn’t much better, with massive pitfalls and the like that are easy to fall into, forcing you to redo the entire level, as there are no checkpoints. Even on the PC, you can’t just save anywhere, as save games load at the beginning of the level you were on.
Speaking of the PC version, while games with Nazis in them are frequently censored in Europe thanks to German law, the PC version of Bloodrayne is curiously censored everywhere, even in the US. Console versions are not, with the trade-off of worse graphics.
Ultimately there’s only two good things about this game. One is that Nazi slaughter never gets old, even if the combat is bad. Rayne tears through Nazi goons like puppies in a blender, sending them running limbless and screaming. It’s honestly cathartic. The other is that the voice acting isn’t all that bad, with several of the voice cast (including Laura Bailey) being Dragon Ball Z alumni. So they know how to make the best of a bad script, full of “edgy” dialogue that seemed cool when your wardrobe was jncos and Invader Zim t-shirts. Unfortunately these do nothing to elevate the game from embodying the worst traits of early 00s pop culture: oversexed, gauche leather fetishism with an improbably sexy protagonist, reveling in being derivative and insipid. Go play Devil May Cry instead.